A wise person once said that information is power. But information without action is useless. Data analysis helps put information into action.
The ability to reason effectively using data continues to grow in importance, whether in business, industry or government. Because every industry is looking to use data to enable better decision-making, the demand for data science experience is far outpacing the nation’s ability to produce the skilled workforce required.
Beginning last fall, students at Clarkson University who were interested in data analytics had the option to pursue a bachelor’s degree in data science. The major formalizes the right mixture of coursework, internships and undergraduate research opportunities to qualify graduates for professional positions requiring quantitative reasoning – a growing necessity in today’s workforce.
While the new major came a little too late for 2019 Clarkson graduates Alicia Mangal, Chris Carter and Ryan Burnham, the belated availability of the data science degree was no deterrent to landing jobs in the field before graduation day. Although the route to meeting the requirements for positions in the data analytics field was detailed and complex, all three mathematics majors had positions awaiting them when they collected their diplomas.
According to Joe Skufca, professor and chair of mathematics at Clarkson, Burnham, Carter and Mangal took full advantage of the school’s flexible curriculum to select coursework that would best prepare them for the field, including participation in internships and undergraduate research problems that connected to the domain. While the new major ensures that students going through the program have access to the right blend of theory and practical experiences, Burnham, Carter and Mangal had to assemble their classes a la carte.
“All three of these young people are, as a starting point, simply good people,” Skufca said. “Moreover, they want to do something important and valuable with the skills that they have assembled.”
Mangal, from Schenectady, New York, immigrated to the United States with her family from Guyana when she was 8 years old and is the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. She will be working for SRCtec in Syracuse as a Manufacturing Analyst while she pursues her master’s degree. The former business major, who participated in Clarkson’s Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), said she became interested in data analytics after taking a statistics course taught by Sumona Mondal, associate professor of Mathematics at Clarkson.
“I learned from the best of the best,” Mangal said. “Numbers suddenly told more of a story than words … I knew I wanted to be a storyteller.”
Mangal admitted that it was a bit of struggle to convince companies that a math major had the skills to work as data analyst.
“Not many companies go out looking for a math major for a position like this,” Mangal said. “Although I am well prepared for my position, a major in data science would have better prepared me for the job, as well as for graduate school. It is more focused in areas that apply to me.”
Carter, from Bristol, Vermont, landed a business analyst position with Harris Corporation in Rochester, New York. He said he was always interested in data and the idea of learning from data. Originally a chemical engineering major, Carter focused his math pursuits on data wrangling, data visualization and statistical modeling because he liked the idea of being able to use data to learn about the world.
“I hope to unify ideas from engineering, science and business with the newer methods of Bayesian statistics,” Carter said, noting that data analysts have tended to apply existing classical statistics methods to problems when possible, or resorting to machine learning. “That leaves out a lot of interesting problems often tackled by people who work with technology. I believe Bayesian methods are the missing link needed for technical problem solvers to build good models, fit them to their data and understand the bounds of their certainty in their conclusions.”
Carter credited Skufca for exposing him to a lot of data science projects during his mathematics education at Clarkson. He also noted that his mathematics major helped him to hone his logical, argumentative and quantitative skills. But it was his computer science and Bayesian methods were the result of electives or extracurricular studies
“I got comfortable thinking quantitatively, writing a lot of code, moving a lot of data around and presenting my conclusions in a way that was palatable to other people,” he said.
Burnham, of Fairport, New York, will be working with the United States government. He was honored during commencement ceremonies with the Levinus Clarkson Award. He was selected for the award by a vote of the full Clarkson faculty based on his scholarship and promise of outstanding achievement. Burnham earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science and mathematics. He completed two semesters of co-op, and was a presidential scholar for all six semesters with a 4.0 grade point average.
Skufca called Burnham “an extremely sharp mathematician” who undertook a lot of co-op and internship opportunities.
Over the last two years, Burnham worked at Assured Information Security (AIS) in Rome, New York, as an intern and consultant within the Advanced Research Concepts group. He was integral in the discovery and development of breakthrough deep learning approaches for user authentication via behavioral biometrics, such as keystrokes, mouse movements and gait. In 2018, Burnham conducted research at the Nevada National Security Site in Las Vegas. There he competed against other national laboratories to design localization methods for nuclear sources within urban environments.
He also worked on programs in support of the site's nonproliferation objective alongside the Nuclear Engineering Department at the University of California, Berkeley.
Skufca noted that character, above all else, is the foundation upon which all three have been successful.
“When the Division of Research hired a new director and she needed some analysis completed to help better understand how to move Clarkson forward in national research challenges, Chris was asked to look at the data. The new director was so impressed with his analysis that she asked him to present the results to the board of trustees.”
“When our department was replacing our administrative assistant, we needed temporary coverage for our office. Ryan was the first to respond … Alicia was the second,” Skufca said.
“All three of these young people make me extremely happy to be a teacher.”